Tillman, George Jr. 1968(?)–
George Tillman, Jr. 1968(?)–
Film writer, director
The success of Soul Food, a comedy-drama film about members of an African American family setting aside their personal troubles at the Sunday dinner table, propelled George Tillman, Jr. into the ranks of Hollywood’s most promising young directors. “Exhale a sigh at the simple pleasures of Soul Food. This new menu movie has a soapy plot, appealing stars, family values, down-home atmosphere and a conviction that there’s rarely a problem fried chicken can’t cure. There sure are worse ways of looking at the world than that,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Released in the autumn of 1997, Soul Food proved that a film about African Americans does not require violence or bawdy humor to draw big audiences. “Some of the black films today are not deep. There are sex comedies, ’hood films. We’re trying to get away from that. I wanted to do something that people could appreciate and remember about family,” Tillman explained to Patrick E. Cole of Time.
Tillman based Sou I Food, which is seen through the eyes of a young boy, on his memories of family gatherings during his middle class childhood in Milwaukee. Fried chicken, potato salad, egg pie, candied yams, and macaroni and cheese, would be served up along with comfort and wisdom by his grandmother, aunts, and mother. “I was the oldest grandchild so I was Grandma’s favorite. I used to love walking back and forth from the kitchen to the living room, catching snippets of very different conversations. In the kitchen my six aunts and Grandma would be gossiping about who was doing what at church, while each one prepared her special dish. Grandma made the chicken and collard greens, Mom made the sweet potatoes, and Aunt Bessie made the iced tea and the chitlins. There was a comforting rhythm in the way they talked. Then I’d go to the living room, where the men were gathered around the TV, watching football. They’d be boasting, joking around, talking cars, work, and problems. It was two different worlds, but I watched and heard everything, just like young Ahmad in the film,” Tillman told Beverly Levitt of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
As a teenager in Milwaukee, Tillman made experimental videos and created a program for local access cable
At a Glance…
Born in c. 1968 in Milwaukee, Wl, Education: Columbia College, Chicago, IL. Married to Marcia Wright (an actress).
Career: Writer and director of Soul food, 1997; also writer and director of the short film, Paula, c. 1990; and the feature length film Scenes for the Soul, c.1995.
Awards: Midwestern Student Academy Award, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, for Paula, c.1990.
television called Splice of Life Finishing high school, Tillman left Milwaukee to study filmmaking at Columbia College in Chicago. During his student years, Tillman made a thirty-minute film, Paula, about an African American single mother who inspires those around her. Paula won numerous student film awards, including a Student Academy Award and a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award. After graduation from college, Tillman supported himself as a production assistant in Chicago. On the strength of Paula, Tillman and a college friend, Robert Teitel, were able to raise $150,000 to make a feature-length film. Called Scenes for the Soul, Tillman’s first feature was a trilogy of stories about black life in Milwaukee.
In 1994 Tillman set out for Hollywood with a few hundred dollars and a copy of Scenes for the Soul. He found that having a completed, full-length film under his belt made a great deal of difference to the reception he received in the movie capital. “I learned that people actually respond when you have something on film or tape. When you say you have a completed movie, I think people really look and listen, because everybody has scripts out here. I was able to get into all the major agencies,” Tillman told Jamie Painter of Back Stage West Tillman managed to sell Scenes for the Soul to Savoy Pictures but the company went bankrupt before the film was released to theaters.
Disappointed but undaunted Tillman returned to Chicago where he wrote the screenplay to Soul Food “I wanted to make a movie about a black family in Middle America. I wanted to make a film where everyone can look at them and say, This is my family,’” Tillman explained to Teresa Wiltz of the Chicago Tribune. When the screenplay was finished, Tillman returned to Hollywood. Focusing on female characters and telling a modest story about the importance of familial bonds, Soul Food was unlikely to generate much interest in a movie industry fixated on male stars in action pictures. Indeed, Tillman’s agents marketed the script as a low-budget, independently produced project and asked composer/musician Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds if he would bolster the package by recording a soundtrack album. Fortuitously, Edmonds and his wife and business partner, Tracey, had just formed a film and television development company. The Edmondses were so impressed by Tillman’s screenplay that they wanted to make the film their company’s first production. “I read the script and just immediately went crazy over it. The story was so great and the characters so real,” Tracey Edmonds told Aldore Collier of Ebony.
The Edmondses were able to get Twentieth Century-Fox Pictures to underwrite the film for the relatively generous sum of approximately $6.5 million. Initially, Twentieth Century-Fox wanted a more experienced director behind the camera but the studio changed its mind after viewing some of Tillman’s earlier work. With Kenneth Edmonds serving as executive producer, and Tracey Edmonds and Tillman’s old friend Robert Teitel as producers, the filming of Soul Food began in October of 1996. Twentieth Century-Fox would have liked to do more pre-production work and commence filming sometime in 1997. However, the principal performers lined up for the film—Vanessa L. Williams, Viveca A. Fox, and Nia Long—had obligations making them unavailable the following year. “We would not have had the same cast. We had to have a schedule to accommodate everybody. We had only 38 days to shoot the movie and could not go a day over that,” Tracey Edmonds explained to Collier. At Tillman’s insistence, Soul Food was made on location in Chicago. “I didn’t understand the Los Angeles atmosphere,” Tillman told Wiltz.
Tillman was extremely pleased with the Edmondses’ participation in the film’s production. “They were pretty much involved in everything. I was able to bounce a lot of ideas off of them. They were there every day to see what was going on, but they didn’t interfere with what I was doing. They let me make the film,” Tillman said of the Edmondses to Sonia Murray of the At la nta Journal-Constitution Tillman was able to bring the film in on schedule because he had so much of it already worked out in his head. “I knew all the shots. I knew the locations. It was the direction I wasn’t certain about. But all I had to do was just get the actors all in tune with what I was trying to accomplish on film. It was pretty much based on my experiences, so it wasn’t hard for me to help them see it. And it all just kind of happened,” Tillman told Murray.
The plot of Soul Food centers around three Chicago-area sisters: Teri (Williams), a high powered attorney who neglects her personal life; Maxine (Fox), a full-time wife and mother; and Bird (Long), a hairdresser recently married to an ex-con. When their mother is hospitalized and the family tradition of a big Sunday dinner is halted, long simmering tensions between the sisters arise. “Writer-director George Tillman, Jr. serves up down-home fare that enriches the heart and leaves you satisfied if stuffed,” wrote Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly called Soul Food a “warm, fractious drama” adding that “George Tillman, Jr. writes and directs with homespun style and a minimum of flash, reminding us that behind a lot of cliches lie simple truths.”
Reaching theaters in September of 1997, Soul Food earned $ 11 million in its first weekend of release despite stiff competition from The Peacemaker, a heavily advertised big-budget action picture starring George Cloon-ey, and the first feature from Steven Spielberg’s much discussed DreamWorks movie company. By the end of its first week Soul Food had earned $14 million, more than twice what it cost to make. Tillman celebrated the first week returns by sitting in at local theaters showing the film. “The shows were sold out, people were laughing, crying, it was just incredible,” Tillman told Murray. The total earnings from Soul Food’s theatrical release was $43 million. The film also did well in video sales. It was hoped, especially after the impressive business of the first week, that Soul Food would attract white moviegoers but that did not turn out to be the case. Whites made up an estimated twelve percent of Soul Food ticket buyers. “I do feel sometimes that white audiences are still not coming to black films as much as I would like. I think we’re still working on that. But I’m really comfortable with where the film ended up,” Tillman told Painter. On the other hand, the lack of white support was viewed by some as a proof that black audiences, more or less alone, can make a film a commercial success. “This segment is really sizable, and Hollywood is just starting to recognize that,” Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners, a marketing strategy firm, said about black audiences to Andy Seiler of USA Today Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, agreed, telling Seiler that Soul Food is “the movie we’ve long been asking for.”
Tillman is married to actress Marcia Wright. He would like to someday have children and move back to Chicago. “For me as a filmmaker, being familiar with my environment is important. I don’t want to get caught up in this whole Hollywood thing … Chicago keeps me grounded,” Tillman wrote in the introduction to the book Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies Tillman and his friend and business partner Robert Teitel have founded a production company, State Street Pictures, and have a two year deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. Included among the offers Tillman has received are a project starring Steve Martin, and biographical films on African American entertainment figures Dorothy Dandridge, Richard Pry or, and Marvin Gaye. “I love Marvin Gaye … there’s something about him and his struggle that I think will make a great film. It’s so interesting to see how someone was so very talented and at the same time so very insecure,” Tillman told Murray. Most definite among Tillman’s future plans is a film on Carl Brashear, the U.S. Navy’s first black salvage and retrieval diver, a project which Tillman envisions as akin to past hits An Officer and a Gentleman and Glory Tillman told Painter—“I love characters people can identify with and relate to—characters that go through struggles we can learn from in our everyday lives. I feel that with a lot of films today, we’re getting away from that. It’s the only thing I respond to.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 31, 1997, p. P18.
Back Stage West, February 19, 1998, p. 6–7.
Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1997, sect.7, p.9; September 26, 1997, sect. 7, p. C.
Ebony, December 1997, p. 143–146.
Entertainment Weekly, January 16, 1998, p. 74.
New York Times, September 26, 1997, p. E10.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 21, 1997.
Time, October 13, 1997, p. 86–88.
USA Today, September 26, 1997, p. D6; October 1, 1997, p. D1.
Variety, September 22, 1997, p. 38.
Washington Post, September 24, 1997, p. E1.
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